400 Years of Slavery

A Discussion

Glenn Loury and John McWhorter

This transcript is reproduced from a discussion between Professors Glenn Loury (Professor of Economics, Brown University) and John McWhorter (Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University) on "The Glenn Show." It is re-published with permission.

LOURY: It is early September, school is starting again, and I have been having this interesting experience the last few weeks, John, and maybe you as well, of getting queries from people asking me, they’ve been saying it in the comments section of my podcast posts which have nothing to do with the issue, they’ve been sending me emails, I’ve been getting messages on my Facebook page from people asking me, “Will you please talk about The 1619 Project?” This is the undertaking at the New York Times Magazine, devoting itself to a reformulation of the historical narrative of the United States of America that centers the year 1619, rather than the year 1776, as the landmark fundamental founding of the country, 1619 being the year, as everybody knows, when African slaves first imported to the colonies, the British colonies, here in the United States. Of course, African slaves had been coming to the so-called New World, Caribbean, and South America for years, but 1619, before the Mayflower, some 20-odd enslaved persons landed in Virginia and we inaugurate the long, brutal era of chattel slavery in the United States. And The 1619 Project, as I understand it, undertakes to tell the story of the creation of the American nation state, the American economy, the American polity, the Constitution, the sort of core narrative for the country, in terms of the unfolding dynamic that is initiated in 1619. And I’m getting people asking me, “What do you think about this? Please talk about this at The Glenn Show.” And I could think of no better interlocutor with whom to pursue this subject, what do we think about The 1619 Project, than you, John.

MCWHORTER: They’ve been asking me that too, and I almost haven’t wanted to say anything because one, I don’t want to get repetitious, and two, I don’t want to be mean about the work that goes into a project like that. I mean that’s heavy-duty journalism, and the people who are putting it together, I’m going to have to say, they’re part of something larger than they have any way to have a sense of. So it’s not a problem with the individual writers, but what they’re doing is, in terms of its focus, in terms of this idea that ... So, the main theme of it seems to be that slavery is what America has always been all about, that the American historical story has to have slavery not just as one element in it, not just as one important element, but as the fulcrum, that we need to have this whole shifted perspective, this whole paradigm shift in perspective on what America is. And, that vision, and the way that it’s wielded in these articles and in like-minded pieces is, once again, it’s religious. I mean, what’s going on is an idea that, for example, it really reminds me of the courses I used to teach here at Columbia and may again on, say, the scholastics, on the kind of philosophy where you’re sitting there waiting for the person to be a philosopher but it can’t quite happen yet because it’s 1200 A.D. and anybody who calls himself “philosopher” has to base everything on certain Christian tenets. And so what you’re supposed to be all about is proving the existence of God, and anything that strays from that, and, more forbidden, anything that questions that, is simply not allowed, and so it’s almost hard to teach this stuff because it can’t get away from that. Thomas Aquinas is a very tough thing to teach, as brilliant as he was. This is that! The idea that slavery is all that we need to talk about, and to be honest, Glenn, I find it is lazy. Frankly, with the Medievals, they couldn’t help it, intellectual history had only gotten so far, but the idea here is, ignore what people are calling complexity, ignore all these cross-currents that people are distracting you with, and instead, think of this entire country, this entire experiment, everything that’s happened over these 400 years, all of it can be summed up in one word: slavery. That is the man with a hammer to whom everything is a nail, and it’s simplistic thinking, and none of this work, to me, provides a coherent justification for why we should go from the way we looked at these things, say, 30 years ago, to this new paradigm where we reduce everything to this moralizing, and that’s what it is, it’s not intellectual, it’s moralizing, about slavery and slavery alone. So I’m disappointed because I feel like it’s low-rent thinking, disguised as higher wisdom.

LOURY: Well, there he said it. You realize, of course, John, that there are a lot of white guys out there, maybe a few girls, too, who are delighted to hear you say what you just said.


LOURY: I mean, I interpret the number of queries that I got in my inbox from people, and the number of comments that I saw at my podcast post from people about, “Would you please talk about this?” As a request for cover. That is, to say, they’re asking that the black guys give them permission to diss The 1619 Project. You see, if we could, more or less articulately, more or less intelligently critique it as black guys, then that means that the white guys, and a few girls, would not be racist for seeing the inadequacies of The 1619 Project. So, that’s the duty that you’re doing. Are you comfortable playing that role, John?

MCWHORTER: Yes. (laughter) I am. All those people are looking for us to give them cover. However, those people are correct that this 1619 business is tragically oversimplified, and they’re correct that if they say so in any kind of public form or even private one, often they’re going to be called racists. They are correct that that’s neither fair nor coherent, and if what it takes is two black guys to say, “You know what, you’re not crazy,” then I dare anybody to say that we don’t qualify as black, in having the feelings that we do. And as such, yeah, we have a responsibility to say, “Yes, there’s something wrong with this vastly oversimplified, medieval way of looking at American history and proposing it as a new paradigm and an advance on previous ways of thought.” So, yeah. Sorry. The fact that they may be exploiting us doesn’t mean that they are wrong on the issue.

LOURY: Well, I want the audience to know that, you remember that little joke about the Lone Ranger and Tonto, when they’re surrounded by Indians and they’re about to go down to bow and arrow, and the Lone Ranger says to Tonto, “What are we going to do now?” And Tonto turns to the Lone Ranger and says, “What do you mean, ‘we’, white man?” (laughter) So I’m turning to you as if to say, “What do you mean, ‘we’?” You’re the one that’s disagreeing about the project, I have yet to utter a word of evaluation about it. You’re out there by yourself.

MCWHORTER: Yeah, let’s pretend we disagree, okay... (laughter)

LOURY: I want to chime in with a couple of things. “Why now?” Is a question that I would like to ask. We are in a certain moment, you used the religious metaphor to characterize what “woke” sensibility would have to say about white supremacy, which we know is at the root of American empire, which is at the foundation of inequality, which is the basis of American capitalism. Matthew Desmond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sociologist at Princeton whose book Evicted is a very fine contribution to contemporary literature, it’s a study of housing insecurity in Milwaukee, very fine Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. But his contribution to this project is to characterize American capitalism as being especially rapacious. Don’t you know that the American welfare state is puny? That the extent to which we have minimum wage, or we have union participation in the economic realm, or we have security for health care or whatever is relatively scant in comparison to other advanced and wealthy democratic countries, and the reason for that, he says, is slavery. It’s the evolution of the American economic system out of what was a rampant and unrestrained exploitation of the labor of the African enslaved people. That’s Matthew Desmond. Nikole Hannah-Jones pretty much says that the founding, that is, the conventional founding, the one that you and I learned about in school. The one where, 1776, Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence, you know, that one? The one that culminates in the Constitution of 1787, the one that is the founding of the longest-running, functioning democratic republic, the one that is the instantiation of the Enlightenment ideals about governance and about the dignity of the human beings that actually got created in institutions on the ground, the one that gave rise to the defeat of Fascism in Asia and in Europe, et cetera, okay? The one that is the home to wave after wave after wave of immigrant, who have come here and have made their lives. The one that actually abolished slavery, I mean, isn’t it curious? Slavery is a commonplace in human history. What’s unique, what’s interesting, what’s different, is the abolition of slavery. That is the fruit of the spirit of 1776, it would appear to me, et cetera. We could go on in this vein. I did have a point with that rant. (laughs) Which is, maybe to just reaffirm your observation that it is a simplistic telling of the story, but it is a very compelling way to look at the story for many people. I have a colleague, I’m not going to name him, I have great respect for him, he’s a distinguished academic, and he was literally gushing to me over the telephone about this project, about how deeply patriotic it was. The Conservatives are attacking Hannah-Jones and others for what they regard, the Conservatives, as a dissing of the American narrative and my friend was telling me, “Oh, no, no, no, actually, actually, it’s a deeply patriotic account from the bottom-up. Viewed from the position of the African American, of the enslaved person, of the freedman, of the disenfranchised in the Jim Crow South of the hopeful, hopeful, ever-hopeful civil rights movement, that the promise already owed of American freedom would finally be honored in the case of African Americans,” all this kind of stuff. But, I didn’t really think it was very patriotic. I didn’t think it was very honest, in a way. The word solipsism kept coming to my mind, you know, the philosophical position that you can’t be sure there’s any other mind than your own mind? They can’t be sure there’s any other story than this racial story that they want to tell, and there are other stories. I mean, really? American democracy, in all of its glory, and with all of its faults and flaws, is best understood with a narrative that puts slavery at the center of it? Really? So, I was dubious about the intellectual merits of that move, of the move that they’re making by... But, why now?

MCWHORTER: I guess --

LOURY: My question. Why now?

MCWHORTER: -- a lot of this is... I mean, yes, it’s true, the United States... It’s important, from a historical perspective, to realize that this was part of a much larger story, that these were colonies, it wasn’t just one, these were colonies, and these transatlantic colonies that a few European countries seeded all over the world were almost all founded in slavery of an utterly unforgiveable and brutal nature. And I think people will argue over whether there could be a United States if there hadn’t been slavery, but it would be a different United States, and the great many of those colonies know! If there hadn’t been plantation slavery, they wouldn’t have existed. There would be no Jamaica if there had not been plantation slavery. And so, it’s an important point to make, but what worries me is what people are intending from stressing the point, because the fact is, it’s been a while, and yes, slavery didn’t mean that racism was over or that it’s over now, but it’s been a while. This is a very large and very diverse nation in which an awful lot has happened since the beginning of the 1600s. The history here is large. And the idea of saying, “Well, really, you can abstractly think that none of it would have been possible without the work that these slaves did, this unpaid labor these slaves did, and therefore we begin, not in 1776, but with 1619, and that’s how we should understand what this is.” It’s logical, but it’s a stretch, and the question is, why that stretch now? And I think the answer is Donald Trump. The ideas that we have, and you and I have argued about whether he’s a racist, but he certainly is not polite about however he feels about people who are not white, and certainly there is Charlottesville and what he said about that, there’s a rise in the open expression of statements that one would call at least not exactly graceful about race. And so, obviously, the Times has decided that they want to make a counterbalance statement and say that America is all about slavery. But the question is, why? And so, all these people stand up and talk about, this solipsistic talk about, “Oh how patriotical this all is, and how good I’m sure it made that person to say that,” whoever it was, -- audience, I do not know even off stage here who Glenn is talking about -- and the question is, okay, let’s suppose, and I think that it’s rather weak to say that all of black problems trace to slavery, but -- which is what the implication here is -- but why? Why do we need to know this and why do we need to think about this all the time? And I think that really there can only be one reason. No one says it, we’re supposed to -- we have to think of it this way and nobody explains what the payoff is supposed to be. Is it supposed to be that white people run around feeling guilty? That’s so senseless that I’m going to assume that that’s not the point. There must be some larger point, and the only logical point could be, we are supposed to look at America being founded in slavery and therefore evaluate black people differently than we would evaluate other people. We’re supposed to think about 1619, and therefore look at any disparities between the races and realize that the reason is not that there’s something wrong with black people, but that 1619 happened. And there’s a map that I’m sure you’ve seen that shows where plantation slavery was most concentrated, and where today black people are the poorest. And the idea is supposed to show that slavery is the reason that there’s so many poor black people in places A, B, and C. You can see this stripe that snakes throughout the South. So it’s that kind of reasoning and the problem is, that’s not the most transparent point. Dean Baquet, or whoever it is, is standing behind a podium and talking about how this lesson must be taught to America, we must think about this, and nobody says why. I think the implied why is, black people’s failures today, and it’s funny, Glenn, you would say black people’s failures, I would say disparities between blacks and whites, I don’t think any black people have failed, but all of that is due to this. And the fact is, it’s not a logical point. Now, I’m almost finished, but you think very quickly.

LOURY: You’ve been on for a long time, man.

MCWHORTER: Yeah, just take a look at the old black business districts in the early twentieth century and why those go away. Did racism increase in 1950? I don’t think so. And then, also, how welfare started to be administered in the late 1960s, there’s a story that nobody tells, and finally, also the change in ideology in the ’60s. All those things have a lot to do with the disparities that we see today. It wasn’t only 1619.

LOURY: Okay, well, you said a lot of things. I think in response, I might try to distinguish between what The 1619 Project, that the New York Times, where Dean Baquet is the senior editor, what it says about the country, what it says about the United States, and distinguish between that and what it says about the conditions of African Americans, what you’re calling the disparities. One kind of claim or narrative, and this is given voice in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s lead essay, is that there’s something hypocritical about the centering of freedom and the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, all persons are created equal, Jefferson, Declaration and stuff like that, it’s kind of hypocrisy there, they said it but they didn’t mean it, they were slaveholders when they were saying it, it only applied to white, male property owners. We’ve been fighting for the last 200-plus years to right that ship. There was a century, or nearly a century, three-quarters of a century after the founding of the country when slavery was being practiced, and then another century after the Emancipation when the descendants of slaves were held outside the orbit of full citizenship. So, stop breaking your arm patting yourself on the back, city on a hill. Let’s change that narrative because white supremacy lies at the core of, and then we go on, America is not all that it thought that it was. The self-congratulatory tone of American, chauvinistic chest-thumping needs to be revised. And then there’s also, I think, as you’ve put your finger on, implications of the centering of slavery with respect to interpreting what, you’re right, I’m going to call them failures, interpreting the history of the last half-century. The social history of African Americans since the civil rights movement. Because the fact of the matter is, that emancipation was a big deal, I’m talking about 1863, and then, with the conclusion of the Civil War, the enactment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment, that was a huge, big deal. That was freedom. No, it was not equal citizenship. Yes, Jim Crow racism and subordination continued. Yeah, I’ve heard about lynching, those things happen, terrorism, it was terrible, it was terrible. But, compared to chattel slavery, the capacity of people to shape their own lives, to develop their skills, to raise their families, to create things like the black business districts that you were giving a voice to before, to come to own land, to give a toehold to migrate out of the South into the urban manufacturing enclaves of the industrializing United States of the late 19th, early 20th century, compared to being held as chattel, that certainly was a landmark move. And the move from I don’t know, 1954 to 1970, if you’ll accept my bracketing of the civil rights movement in that timeframe, that’s also a monumental structural transformation of institutions in the United States. Now, in the wake of that, the disparities persist. The overrepresentation amongst the impoverished, the fractured families, the huge test score gaps, the... You could go down the list, one after another after another, social indicator of inequality, the so-called “wealth gap” and so forth and so on. What’s up with that? “You people,” a person might say, not a kind person, “are enjoying the fruits of freedom and equal citizenship, at least, not perfectly so, but very substantially so, and yet,” and yet, OK, Hannah-Jones dismisses, she says at one point in her article she says, and this really blew my top, she says, “Yes, there are these statistics and there are these disparities and they are as predictable as anything given the horrific character of slavery.” Really? It was predictable that 70 percent of black babies would be born to a woman who is not married? It was predictable that the homicide rate amongst African Americans, young men, would be 10 times higher than it is amongst whites? It was predictable that a majority of African American students, in one school system after another, test below basic proficiency in reading and in mathematics? All these things were predictable? Really? They were necessary consequences of this history? I don’t believe that for a moment, and what that says about black people is horrific, in my view. It’s says we are simply the products of an oppressive history, and any flaws you find in our social functioning are to be attributed to what? To who? White people! White supremacy! It smacks of somebody who we will leave nameless in this conversation, but you know who I’m talking about, and this whole schtick, this whole apologia. That’s what it is, it’s apologia. It is giving an account of failure. That’s what it is. It’s laying off the responsibility for failure on structure, and I find that deeply philosophically unsatisfying. …

MCWHORTER: Well, I just want to bolster something you were saying to make it clear to the audience. That “predictable” line is particularly weak in that, that’s not the way black America was 50 years ago, and so, 70 percent, you know --

LOURY: A lot of that stuff is latter-day stuff. Yeah. A lot of the gap stuff is latter-day stuff. It’s post-World War II stuff, it’s not baked into the cake from slavery. And no account is given, you mentioned the structure of the American welfare state, and the incentives that that create, you might also want to talk about the drifts in African American culture and how it’s influenced patterns of behavior that are disadvantageous. I suppose, again, there’s enough blame to go around, and yes, racism and exclusion will have to be a part of the story, but that they’re the whole story? That’s implausible and extreme. But the other thing I want to say is, if I were Irish, I would resent having the American story centered on slavery. I would say no, it was more than that. I would say something about my ancestors migrating to the country under duress and whatnot and finding an opportunity, and then helping to build the country (inaudible). If I were Jewish, I mean, think about this, think about other groups adopting this same chauvinistic, solipsistic moral high ground, highhandedness. “The whole country is built on our backs.” There are a lot of, “But for that you wouldn’t have had this.” There are a lot of things like this. What about the settlement of the West? What about the people who moved out and conquered and settled the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains and then west of the Mississippi River and then et cetera, et cetera? What about that? What about the Southern and Eastern European immigrants? What about the Jews? Imagine a narrative in which you say, “This country is founded on the excellent achievements of,” and then put your group, put your favorite group in there. And then they tick off, “If it hadn’t have been for our forefather who did this or hadn’t done that, you wouldn’t have this so you wouldn’t have that.” Well, what kind of way is that to talk to your fellow countrymen? Really? They owe their freedom and prosperity to your suffering? That’s your account? And you expect to do politics with them? You expect to compromise with them and to create institutions that actually solve problems that you all have in common? In the conversation, with this kind of supercilious smugness, and you expect everybody to just lay down and nod in affirmation?

MCWHORTER: And yeah, the thing is, the answer for many of these people would be, “Yes!” I think there are an awful lot of smart, accomplished black people, for example, who really do want it to be that way, that there’s supposed to be a sense that everybody kowtows to them when it comes to moral issues, that anything that goes wrong for them has to be understood partly as a result of 1619, et cetera. And what worries me about this sort of thing is that it’s symptomatic of a thread in the American social fabric, and it’s a sort of thing, where, just like if you ask a white person if they’re a racist, that’s not going to get at the truth. You’re not going to ask a black guy about this. You’re not going to ask a black guy, “Do you feel like you’re owed a pass because of black people’s history and slavery and Jim Crow?” Most people would say no. But I’m sure, psychological experiments could be done that would reveal a kind of truth that you see, and I’m beginning to use the New York subway for a lot of my examples, and some people say they’re just anecdotes, but I insist, “No, they are no more just anecdotes than the typical sort of thing that somebody on the left will say about a white person.” And nowadays it’s white people who are talking about white people this way. If some anecdote about some white guy who’s manspreading in some shopping mall or something, is about real life, well then, the sorts of things that I see, being on the streets of New York City every day of my life, they do mean something because I’ve been experiencing this for a long time. Just the other day, I was in a crowded subway car where, you know, seats are only opening up so much. And there was a guy next to me, black guy, probably about 27, and you know, he clearly thinks that the rules are different for him, and, importantly, this is no quote-unquote “thug.” He’s not a criminal, he’s not dangerous, he’s not a terrible person, but you can already see a certain look on his face, this sort of “don’t tread on me” look on his face, which most other people don’t have. But in his case, I think he’s internalized, I don’t call it a failure, he’s internalized what he subconsciously thinks of as a black man’s default demeanor, which is, frankly, this demeanor of “fuck you.” Now you might say that he lives in a neighborhood where he has to adopt that demeanor in order not to be picked on, okay. So I’ll give him some sympathy for that. Although, I’d say also, again, he didn’t seem dangerous, he was just, frankly, his ordinariness is what worries me. But, anyway, we’re standing there, and a seat opens up. Now, the unspoken etiquette in the subway is that seats go to older people, to pregnant people, or, if you’re a young, or in my case young-ish man, you internalize a sense that if there’s, say, even a 35- or 40-year-old woman with a couple of shopping bags, she gets the seat. If you are a healthy male, your sense is, you only take that seat if there’s no one else who’s lower on the physical totem pole than you. Now, there are all sorts of people like that around; a woman, a Chinese woman, clearly doesn’t speak English, who’s standing there with all her bags. This guy shoves his way over, gently, and takes the seat. Now, why doesn’t he know that pecking order? He’s probably lived in New York his whole fucking life. I learned this after about two weeks in New York City, and it’s fine with me. But, more to the point, here’s how he sits, and, folks, if you can’t hear it, I’m sorry. But, imagine me hanging on the bars as if I’m doing pull-ups. So he takes his hands, and he puts them on the bar, and slowly hangs himself down into the seat, which means that he has to take up space. You have to have your arms spread, and everybody backs up, and he’s got this baleful expression on his face and he plops down into that seat, and then he just sits. Why did he have to sit that way? Everybody else, when they sit down, kind of pulls in their shoulders and sits daintily into the seat because it’s crowded! The seats are too small anyway. But he’s got to get on there and hang from it like he’s in a gym, and slowly... What he’s saying, and I’m sure that none of this was planned, was, “Y’all gotta watch out for me.” And some of it is masculinity, he’s making himself bigger like he’s some kind of bird doing some sort of courtship, and to be honest I’ve seen a lot of black guys who get into the subway seat like that. Got to hang from the bars. Why? And the fact of the matter is, where he gets this, and the men who he’s subconsciously mimicking who conduct themselves that way in the train, all of them feel like they get a pass. They feel like they don’t have to behave the way everybody else behaves. Why would they feel that way? Are they crazy? No, they’re not crazy. They think that, because the cops don’t like black people, I think that’s the first thing you’d get, and then in general you would get, “Well, with the way the United States treats black people, we can do whatever we goddamn want.” This 1619 business helps infect the country with that, because those men may get a certain sense of self-protection and certain sense of having their say by behaving this way, but it makes everybody else hate them, and you can’t help wondering what kind of job anybody like that is likely to hold down, beyond the level of stocking shelves. Anybody who conducts himself that way probably wouldn’t last delivering for FreshDirect. You know, he’s got that chip on his shoulder, but he’s not going to get anywhere in life. I think that this 1619 series, in creating this idea that black people are not subject to standards -- and that’s what it effectively does -- that black people get a pass, ends up making too many black people worse. And, of course, Daquan or whatever his name is, he doesn’t read the New York Times, so these are indirect matters, but it’s a thread of society that says that black people don’t have to try as hard.

LOURY: Okay, so here’s a rebuttal, or, I’m going to try, okay? I’m going to try. He’s angry. Got a chip on his shoulder, and he’s mad, he’s angry because he has had to, from day one, deal with white supremacy and racism, John, I’m going to actually use those words. He’s had to deal with it, whether it be a cop who is rude and roughs him up somewhere, disrespect, a store manager who follows him around, thinks he’s a thief. Somebody on that subway who looked at him askance just because he’s a black man, or everything else in between. He goes to his kid’s school, the teachers and the principals don’t treat him like the other parents, they presume that he’s stupid and doesn’t have anything to offer, et cetera. He’s angry. He’s angry about the job where he should have gotten a promotion that went to a guy who had the right melanin content in his skin, and it didn’t go to him. He’s an angry black man, and he’s got very good reason to be angry. By the way, you’re saying that he feels entitled? What about all the black men, all of these generations who have had to suffer at the hands of -- who have dangled from trees, because of lynch mobs, who had their skin stripped from them being dragged behind a pickup truck, et cetera? He has a right to be angry. To put it on him, first of all, you abuse him, then, when he reacts sullenly, you blame him. Classical blaming the victim, John. I’m really surprised at you. (laughter)

MCWHORTER: Okay, Ta-Nehisi. You make... The person who says that, who is not you. You’re making him sound like he’s Walter Younger, like he’s -- I’m imagining this black guy in a black-and-white movie in 1961.

LOURY: People need to know that Walter Lee Younger is the protagonist in A Raisin in the Sun, the Lorraine Hansberry’s great play, a very frustrated African American man.

MCWHORTER: For those reasons, and, you know, nobody would ask why Walter Lee is angry.

LOURY: Well, because it was in 1955 Chicago, is why.

MCWHORTER: Right! I don’t think that this guy now is living that life. I think that very few people are looking at him dirty, and I should tell you that, everybody, that he was out of the corner of my eye. I was not looking him up and down, [see?]. He came to my consciousness very gradually. But, I don’t think anybody’s looking at him --

LOURY: Well, excuse me, you dared not look him up and down. If you look him up and down, you’re inviting a conflict.

MCWHORTER: Oh, he would start yelling at you. I don’t think, frankly, that anybody at a PTA meeting presumes that he’s stupid. I think that most of the people, the white people at PTA meetings today, would feel it upon themselves because they do read the New York Times, to treat him with a kind of deference they probably would not give to a young white man. I think that he has picked up a lot of demeanor, the way any human being picks up demeanor, from the peers closest to him, and I think a lot of his attitude is outdated in the Bed-Stuy context that he probably grew up in. And he has no way of helping that, in a way, but nothing... A society that really wanted to help this person would not support him in this sort of thing by promulgating this narrative that black people are never truly responsible for themselves. Now, I don’t know how he’s been treated by the cops, but I know that it’s at the point where, with the way he conducts himself, it would be much easier for things to go wrong between him and the cops than me. And again, I don’t blame him, but I do see that that is the case, that with that demeanor -- and notice I don’t say attitude, because that makes it sound like he’s trying -- but with that baked-in demeanor of his, of “Don’t tread on me, no matter what’s going on, you’ve got to treat me different,” he’s never going to get anywhere, and he could get killed! And so he, I look at, and I think, “Wow, you’re a lost cause. You’re part of why people like Glenn and me have trouble with the ideology in society.” I don’t think it’s his fault, but we elite people, in promulgating narratives like this one that you and I don’t like, we end up putting into the water the sort of thing that teaches people like him that it’s un-black to really try, that to be black is to not be subject to the rules that everybody else is. And that, no matter how much you justify it, no matter how innocent this guy is, it gets us nowhere fast.

LOURY: But here’s the reply that’s going to come from the people with the three names: they’re going to say, “No, no, no, black men and women, from the very beginning, have been trying. They tried to be landowners and had their land stolen from them. They tried to be shopkeepers and they were dispossessed. They tried to participate in the political process, and they were disenfranchised. They went and fought wars for the country, and came home -- and Hannah-Jones makes a point out of this in her essay -- and were treated with disdain. They could not earn the standing of equal citizenship, even by being willing to surrender their lives on the battlefield. In every war since the Civil War, African Americans have fought on behalf of the union, on behalf of the flag, on behalf of the country. They’ve served, and yet, they have men and women being denied. So now, with the fruit of that, and we have to take this on because the claim is, given all of that disenfranchisement, marginalization and exclusion, repression, oppression, discrimination, now, now we see quote-unquote “failure.” That is, we see the family disorganization, or we see behavioral problems in the young men, and we see academic performance lagging, or whatever it is that we see. And you take this reality of today out of the historical context and you put the responsibility for it on the shoulders of the people who have suffered the most. Don’t you know that there’s not a room you can go in, whether it’s a newsroom, a corporate office suite, a sports franchise, there’s no place you can go where the privilege attendant to whiteness isn’t evident, and where the exclusion associated with blackness isn’t also a part of the mix. Hannah-Jones calls our attention to the fact that, because everything else good in America is the fruit of African American suffering, so too was the liberalization of the immigration laws in the mid-1960s. The fruit of the civil rights movement and African American struggling. And she says, paraphrasing, “Ironically, there are Asian Americans today who are going to try to deny a seat in Harvard University,” I don’t think she names the university, but she alludes to it, “based upon a civil rights claim that doesn’t have any resonance at all in American history but for the fact that African Americans made it first. So, African Americans manned the barricades demanding non-European racist immigration policy and general public policy, which allows Asian immigrants to come to the country and flourish, and now, those Asian immigrants who say, “Don’t discriminate against me because I’m not black,” are ungrateful. In effect, they’re hypocrites! And you know, I mean, I’m sorry, I’m arguing with myself. I meant to be the devil’s advocate, and I’ve slipped into this thing. But that’s the idea. The idea is we’ve suffered. The idea is the perfection of this democracy, of what Obama says, “A more perfect union, a more perfect union.” The perfection of this democracy, step by fitful step, has been eked out as a consequence of African Americans striving to get their birthright here in this country. And, yeah, it’s not such a pretty picture in the socioeconomic landscape in many black communities, but that’s readily understandable.


LOURY: Including this gentleman’s anger and alienation and sullenness. Readily underst--

MCWHORTER: Nope. No. That person’s view of American social history is, unfortunately, too edited. Roughly, the idea seems to be that there was Plessy v. Ferguson -- I’m trying to think of what it is. Booker T. Washington comes along and tries to set us back, and he’s an Uncle Tom, and he eats at the White House, and they break the crockery after he leaves that he ate off of, and, so, I guess that’s part of it. And then, I guess, the idea is that black people fought in World War I and II, and, pretty soon, there’s the Montgomery bus boycott, and A. Philip Randolph is in there somewhere, but I get the feeling, for a lot of people, in the first about four decades of the 20th century, the only thing to remember is the Tulsa Riots, and the idea that that happened in a lot of other places too. So, I guess, for a lot of people, I don’t think it’s new on them to know that any major city with a black population had a thriving black business district, and a small but stable black middle-class, and some black people who were almost rich. I guess everybody knows that. But I think people assume in a shorthand fashion, that all of those places were just razed down by the Ku Klux Klan or something like that, when, really, what happened is that those districts faded away after desegregation efforts started having some effect, even in the ’50s as opposed to ’60s, when, unfortunately, the vaster resources of the white versions of all those stores that you could go to in the black districts ended up attracting black people as well. Now, you can say that that’s unfortunate. I wish I had grown up able to go to one of those all-black shopping districts, all-black banks and theaters, et cetera, but to say that it was racism that did those districts in, as if something white people did or white hatred is what took care of the Shaw District in Washington D.C. or old black Los Angeles or old black San Francisco, it’s simply bad history! Or, one other example is, desegregation happens in the late ’60s, and, talk about bussing, a lot of black kids wind up in white schools, where, because white people are still kind of backwards, a lot of white people didn’t really want them there. A lot of white teachers didn’t want them there. The attitudes that those black kids encountered turned a generation of black kids against school, thinking of it as something white. That meme has been passed on, even in schools where the whites have become much more enlightened, because memes have a way of sticking for various reasons I won’t get into. That is where the idea comes from, and this guy on the train may have been part of it, that school is not quite a black thing unless, roughly, you’re studying black history or something like that, that school is for white people. That’s when it starts, it starts in the late ’60s as the result of racism then that was in the wake of the desegregation that we’re now calling Joe Biden a racist for having been against because of the bussing. In other words, just complex. So the idea that black people being discriminated against is at the root of everything, you might want to ask Hannah-Jones, “Why are you so unconcerned with the fact that so many black students can’t get into Harvard without a special dispensation?” Instead of being angry at the Asians or thinking, “Hey, civil rights was supposed to be for us,” why aren’t you thinking about how to make it so that we don’t need help to get into the top schools, just like those Asian immigrants don’t? Her priorities reflect this general meme of hers, and I just don’t see it as as sophisticated as a lot of these people think. They think they know more history than some of the rest of us, but their vision of how black history went is, as if only for us, history is this kind of simplistic, fourth-grade-level diorama, when, really, we’re all grown-ups, and we’re supposed to realize that stuff is complicated, and it’s complicated in a way that simply doesn’t lend itself to anything as tempting, as narcotic, as ambrosial as the notion that America is all slavery. That’s -- you know it’s not going to work. It’s too good. That’s just not the way life goes.

LOURY: Yeah. A couple of things. You mentioned Donald Trump very briefly, and I’m not going to get into an argument with you about whether or not he’s a racist, I don’t regard that as a productive use of our time, but, I do think that the fissures and schisms that we have in our political life associated with the rise of Donald Trump is related to the question, “Why now?” About The 1619 Project. It’s partly this pat political argument that some people on the right are making. They had the Russia hoax, it didn’t work out for them, now they have to use the racism hoax in order to marginalize Donald Trump. It’s partly that. But I think, even more fundamentally, it’s that the supporters of Donald Trump have to be understood as somehow, the latter-day, the modern-day instantiation of this age-old, defining American flaw, which is white supremacy. The -- these battles going on over these issues like immigration and the border where the leverage, it seems to me, on the progressive side, a lot of it comes from the ability to characterize oppositional limitation, and kind of ideas, and attitudes about immigration, to characterize them as racist, as, “You want this to be a country that’s safe for white people,” and whenever I hear that argument, I cringe a little bit as a black person, because I know that the moral force of that argument is dependent upon the actual experiences of African Americans. That is, I say, “America is a white supremacist nation,” without the narrative of African American enslavement and suppression during second-class citizenship of Jim Crow, that argument doesn’t, I don’t think, carry a whole lot of weight. But, on behalf of a liberal immigration policy, people are appropriating the moral credibility of African American claims on behalf of a larger allegation, that larger allegation being that people of color are becoming slowly but surely a majority of the country, and the soon-to-be marginalized white population which is used to lording it over everybody else is in a reactive mode. That reactive mode is at least partly reflected in the election of Donald Trump, and that election is inconsistent with American values for all the reasons that we can imagine. What do you think about that?

MCWHORTER: Well, you know, I... Once again, the whole issue of the racism of the Trumpian Electorate, I find it vastly oversimplified and uncharitable. There’s a whole language that we’re encouraged to use on race, where we talk about whole races of people as if they were one person. There’s a kind of a poetry in it, but it’s weak science, and often it’s just weak logic, and so the idea that whites are used to being in control, which ones? I immediately picture a white woman pushing a shopping cart. She’s got a kid. Is she used to being in control? Which whites? So then, is it whites in power? And so, I’m imagining a white person in a suit in Washington D.C. … That person, the sort of person you and I meet sometimes at a conference. Is that person questing for power? If they are, then most of them are incredibly good actors. That seems to me, that what we’re talking about is this aggregate notion of whiteness which nobody who uses that kind of language could actually define. They just will wink at you. But, I don’t know what that means, and so with this Trumpian Electorate, just even the idea that -- I disagree with you that Trump... I do think that we could put Trump under the umbrella of the word “racist,” he’s not going to burn a cross on anybody’s lawn, but in terms of why you would vote for somebody like that. The idea that -- this is something that I get from a lot of very smart people, Obama was president for two terms, and now white America wants to get back at that by having Trump. Trump is in because of that. And whose agency are we talking about, especially given that many of those people voted for Obama anyway? And it’s as if somehow, all of a sudden, life becomes an Arthur Miller play, or Tony Kushner play, but we’re not in a play. And so, I think that that way of looking at things is an attempt, I guess it’s an attempt at being a historian with vision. You think about the whole nation and you try to draw patterns. But when you forget what individual people are like, what you’re doing is singing, and that’s different from analysis. And so, yeah. It makes me impatient in a lot of this writing, because you’re allowed to dehumanize ordinary, unexceptionable black people, unexceptionable white -- I said that all wrong. Ordinary, unexceptionable whites, you just talk about them like objects. But then, with a black person, everything is individual. So I talk about the guy on the train, and a certain kind of person thinks, “Don’t generalize,” as if we don’t all know that that person is a type. You know, I’m thinking of this as a type. It’s not that there’s this one weird person I saw on the train one day last week. But, no, it’s supposed to be individual. You see black kids in Chicago shooting each other over sneakers every summer, and it’s in every city, including this summer, and you’re supposed to think, “That’s not about being black. That’s not a generalization, that’s just those particular kids,” and yet we’re supposed to look at the white woman in the supermarket and think she’s part of this general thing called whiteness, and only white people are we allowed to talk about that way, and somehow that’s allowed. This is back to Thomas Aquinas. This is medieval thought, especially in that, if you question any of it, outside of certain circles, you are considered not fit for society.

LOURY: Yeah, except, and I’ve been pushing this for a while, I think they’re bluffing. I mean, I think there’s a two-level discourse going on. There’s what’s said in polite society, and we all know what is polite to say, and so we genuflect, and we obey. And then there’s what’s said in closer spaces when we’re talking to people whom we can trust, whether it be within the family, or within the close friendship networks, or whatever like that. And, I don’t think... You take the issue of homicide and race, so-called black-on-black crime. Kids getting killed in St. Louis, that’s the reason, in the last few weeks, a lot of kids under 12 years old have gotten shot to death on the streets of St. Louis. And we know what the line is. The line is that this is a result of, it might be the police, it might be inequality, it might be segregation, it might be whatever, these are structural factors that are at play. That’s what you’d say in polite society. But, it’s also barbarity, John! It’s contemptible barbarity! The slaughter of innocent children in the handful, in the dozens, on the streets of American cities? It’s barbarity! And everyone knows it. Ah, ah. See, since I’m black you can’t call me a racist if I say of such contemptible violent behavior, that nobody wants to live that way; that it is discrediting in the extreme of the community that gives rise to it. I don’t think people are confused about that around their kitchen tables. In the closer spaces, I think they actually know there’s a problem there, in that community. They don’t really believe the “structure is responsible for all of this aberrant behavior” argument. Neither do they believe that the Asians are overrunning all of these hard-to-get-into schools and getting such high scores on the exam, and so forth, because of some kind of privilege. People know that they’re working hard. They know that they have a culture that values this kind of achievement. They know – all you have to do is look at the statistics -- that their families are intact, that there’s respect for the approval of the parents. They know that these people have earned this distinction. And I’ll tell you something else they know. They know that this is a great country that allows that to happen, that allows millions of people from other parts of the world to come and make their lives among us, and then to show their mettle through achievement. A great and open society, you can’t name another one on the planet about which that is true. So, people are not confused about this, and I fear, I mean I fear that the lid is going to blow off of these, some of these -- I mean, you see it in the comedians. Have you seen Dave Chapelle’s most recent --

MCWHORTER: You mean the statistics on it?

LOURY: -- Netflix special?

MCWHORTER: That, yeah, 99 percent of ordinary viewers, in some poll, said that they loved it, but then the Rotten Tomatoes poll, i.e. the smart media types, only three-eighths liked it. That’s the sort of thing that we’re facing, yeah.

LOURY: But that’s what I’m talking about! The reason that the public loved it is because he was telling the truth by their lights, and he had the courage to do so. Conventions. Jussie Smollett? Have you seen the -- have you seen the, yeah? (laughs) That’s what he does, and he says, “We didn’t believe that nigga! We knew he was lying all along, we didn’t believe that!” (laughter) “Nobody with any sense believed that nigga.” And there’s a lot of things like that, John. There’s, you know, a cop is afraid, he goes into a dark corridor, around the alley, and he’s chasing somebody, he thinks he might have a gun, he’s afraid for his life, the cop is not some kind of... Okay, I’m typing now, but, I mean, he’s not some kind of a Nazi who runs around trying to execute. Most people know that that’s the hardest job you can possibly have. So when the Attorney General of the United States comes out and says, as he did a few weeks ago in a speech, a good speech, that law enforcement is our first line of defense against chaos and disorder in society and we owe these people our gratitude, a lot of Americans agree with that. Right? So, the presumption that you can just dismiss that kind of thing as right-wing rhetoric, as fit for Breitbart.com or Sean Hannity but not relevant to voters in Ohio, or Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin, or Nevada, or whatever it might be, I think it’s --

MCWHORTER: Well, I think what you’re touching on is that I think we’re -- you and I are in the middle of a certain shift in the sociohistorical current because there is a kind of non-black person who I do not think is bluffing about this sort of thing, and we’ve been in this territory before. But if you talk about the kids who are shooting each other, there’s a certain kind of overeducated person who genuinely will sit there and tell you, “Think about all the anger that’s in those kids. After all, they don’t have fathers, and then they go to school and nobody teaches them anything, and think about how the cops treat them.” And they really do think that that explains why these kids are shooting each other over sneakers. And the sad thing is that, to the extent that they’ve learned to think of black people that way when they would never think of their own children that way, it’s racism of a different kind. And yet, they would never know it, and I wouldn’t want to call it that way too athletically, but they have a lowered expectation of black people that can only be explained as thinking that we are fundamentally inferior. In terms of the schools, that same person, that same very ordinary person will say, “The reason that black kids can’t get into Harvard, is because, well, think about how their teachers have lower expectations of them,” as if the black kids who even try to get into Harvard are from the schools that you see in Stand By Me, as if they came off of the ghetto streets and it’s as if it was 1967. You know, they have trained themselves to not think about the contradictory evidence. They know, deep down, that there’s a certain cognitive dissonance, but they would never face that dissonance enough to actually consider changing their conclusions. They’ve been taught that thinking of black people as talented monkeys is a form of higher wisdom, but I think that view is more on the ropes now than it was even 10 years ago. There are more and more people who are brave enough to say that this mental equipoise, that they’re supposed to wangle about why some black people do the things they do and how we’re supposed to respond to it, doesn’t make any sense, and a lot of them are beginning to realize that if they say so, the sky isn’t necessarily going to fall in because there’s no sky in the internet. Now, of course, the problem is that there’s a fine line between being sick of that kind of bullshit, and you call that, not only the intellectual dark web, but there’s a circle of people surrounding that, especially in New York and D.C., a coalescing group of people of which I would definitely consider myself a part. The kind of Quillette crowd, although I don’t necessary write for Quillette, Coleman is part of this crowd, who are just saying, “Come on. Let’s stop your bullshit.” That is definitely a crowd, and I think that it’s healthy, but there’s a fine line between that crowd, and people who believe, really, that there is something wrong with black people and are looking for a reason to voice actual, bonafide racism. And we have to acknowledge that, and I think that the fact that there is that fine line doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to push against the bullshit. I don’t want to name the kind of person who crosses that fine line, some people could probably fill in some gaps, but the difference between those people and people like Coleman, you, me, or, on another side of things, Bari Weiss or Meghan Daum, these people are not racists, they are not white --

LOURY: Emily Yoffe.

MCWHORTER: Emily Yoffe is a perfect example, yeah, this little world, you know --

LOURY: Let me say one thing, John, I think we need to get out. I want to reiterate something. Slavery is a universal of human experience. Read Orlando Patterson’s book Slavery and Social Death, where he goes through history all the way back to antiquity. Slavery has been everywhere in human history. What is different is mass abolition, the decision of the British Navy to extirpate the transatlantic slave trade, and the decision, ultimately, of the American Republic, to rid itself of the peculiar institution of slavery. That’s different. That’s a fruit of the Enlightenment. That’s a fruit of the very ideas that are given short shrift when 1776 is told to stand in line behind 1619 when you’re telling the history of America. The Civil War barely gets mentioned in Hannah-Jones’s essay! Hundreds of thousands of bodies strewn across these battlefields, in order to liberate the slaves, that’s what the war was fought about! No, that doesn’t let America off the hook, but the idea that Abraham’s Lincoln’s doings is not in some sense the historical completion of Thomas Jefferson’s doings, seems to me to be just wrong. It is the historical -- it’s the second founding of the American Republic, and Lincoln was very consciously aware of that. All of this revisionist history in which we try to -- Hannah-Jones makes a big thing out of a meeting that Lincoln has with some American leaders of American, African Americans, where he entertains the idea that they might want to consider emigrating away from the United States and going back to Africa.

MCWHORTER: Yes. Common view at the time.

LOURY: As if to compromise would make the monumental historical achievements of Lincoln in freeing the slaves and, ultimately, initiating the political process that culminates in the enactment of the Reconstruction Amendments... It’s mind boggling! Black people didn’t win our freedom by ourselves. We won our freedom -- you want to talk about the civil rights movement? Yes, there were black people on the barricades, and there were a lot of white people on the barricades as well! We didn’t just simply wrest our freedom away from an unwilling and ungiving recalcitrant white supremacist, you know? The country came to understand itself in different terms. Martin Luther King’s leadership was premised on that very idea, “magnificent promissory note” and all of that. So, yeah, it’s an inadequate telling of American history. You going to let me have the last word, or you want to say something?

MCWHORTER: I’m going to say one little thing. Yours is the last word. Anybody who is incapable of understanding how important, and what a great man Abraham Lincoln was because, by our standards, he was a racist, he thought black people should go back to Africa. Anybody who can’t see history as progressing, step-by-step, is not doing history. These people seem to think that everything is the present, and that worries me because we need our genuine historians. But everything you’re saying is absolutely correct.

Image: By Allie Smith, Source: Unsplash, License Unsplash License

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